Ecosocialism, democracy and planning

The exponential growth of attacks on the environment and the increasingthreat of the breakdown of the ecological balance point towards a catastrophic scenario that puts in danger the survival itself of the human species. We are facing a crisis of civilization that demands radical change, writes Michael Lowy.

If capitalism can’t be reformed to subordinate profit to human survival,what alternative is there but to move to some sort of nationally andglobally planed economy? Problems like climate change require the“visiblehand” of direct planning…

Our corporate capitalist leaders can¹t helpthemselves, have no choice but systematically make wrong, irrational andultimately – given the technology they command – globally suicidal decisionsabout the economy and the environment. So then, what other choice do we havethan to consider a true socialist alternative?Richard SmithEcosocialism is an attempt to provide a radical civilizational alternative,based on the basic arguments of the ecological movement, and of the Marxistcritique of political economy. It opposes what Marx called the capitalistdestructive progress [1] an economic policy founded on non-monetary andextra-economic criteria : the social needs and the ecological equilibrium.

This dialectical synthesis, attempted by a broad spectrum of authors, fromJames O¹Connor to Joel Kovel and John Bellamy Foster, and from André Gorz(in his early writings) to Elmar Altvater, is at the same time a critique of”market ecology”, which does not challenge the capitalist system, and of”productivist socialism”, which ignores the issue of natural limits.According to James O’Connor, the aim of ecological socialism is a newsociety based on ecological rationality, democratic control, socialequality, and the predominance of use-value over exchange-value. [2] I wouldadd that this aims require: a) collective ownership of the means ofproduction, – “collective” here meaning public, cooperative or communitarianproperty; b) democratic planning that makes it possible for society todefine the goals of investment and production, and c) a new technologicalstructure of the productive forces. In other terms : a revolutionary socialand economic transformation. [3]

For ecosocialists, the problem with the main currents of political ecology,represented by most Green Parties, is that they do not seem to take intoaccount the intrinsic contradiction between the capitalist dynamics ofunlimited expansion of capital and accumulation of profits, and thepreservation of the environment. Hence a critique of productivism, which isoften relevant, but does not lead beyond an ecologically-reformed “marketeconomy”.

The result has been that many Green Parties have become theecological alibi of center-of-left social-liberal governments. [4]As Richard Smith recently observed : “the logic of insatiable growth isbuilt into the nature of the system, the requirements of capitalistproduction. Each corporation, acting rationally from the standpoint ofthe owners and employees seeking to maximize their own self-interest, makesindividually rational capitalist decisions. But the result is that in theaggregate, these individual rational decisions are massively irrational,indeed ultimately catastrophic, and they are driving us down the road tocollective suicide”. [5]

On the other hand, the problem with the dominant trends of the left duringthe 20th century – social-democracy and the Soviet-inspired communistmovement – is their acceptance of the really existing pattern of productiveforces. While the first limited themselves to a reformed – at best keynesian­version of the capitalist system, the second ones developed a collectivist- or state-capitalist form of productivism. In both cases, environmentalissues remained out of sight, or were marginalised.

Marx and Engels themselves were not unaware of the environmental-destructiveconsequences of the capitalist mode of production : there are severalpassages in Capital and other writings that point to this understanding. [6]Moreover, they believed that the aim of socialism is not to produce more andmore commodities, but to give human beings free time to fully develop theirpotentialities. In so far, they have little in common with “productivism”,i.e. with the idea that the unlimited expansion of production is an aim initself.

However, there are some passages in their writings who seem to suggest thatsocialism will permit the development of productive forces beyond the limitsimposed on them by the capitalist system. According to this approach, thesocialist transformation concerns only the capitalist relations ofproduction, which have become an obstacle – “chains” is the term often used- to the free development of the existing productive forces; socialism wouldmean above all the social appropriation of these productive capacities,putting them at the service of the workers.

To quote a passage fromAnti-Dühring, a canonical work for many generations of Marxists : insocialism “society takes possession openly and without detours of theproductive forces that have become too large” for the existing system. [7]The experience of theSoviet Unionillustrates the problems that result froma collectivist appropriation of the capitalist productive apparatus : sincethe beginning, the thesis of the socialization of the existing productiveforces predominated. It is true that during the first years after theOctober Revolution an ecological current was able to develop, and certain(limited) protectionist measures were taken by the Soviet authorities.However, with the process of Stalinist bureaucratization, the productivisttendencies, both in industry and agriculture, were imposed with totalitarianmethods, while the ecologists were marginalised or eliminated.

Thecatastrophe ofChernobylis an extreme example of the disastrousconsequences of this imitation the Western productive technologies. A changein the forms of property which is not followed by democratic management anda reorganization of the productive system can only lead to a dead end.A critique of the productivist ideology of “progress” and of the idea of a”socialist” exploitation of Nature appeared already in the writings of somedissident marxists of the 1930¹s, such as Walter Benjamin. But it is mainlyecosocialism which has developed, during the last few decades, a challengeto the thesis of the neutrality of productive forces, which was predominantin the main tendencies of the left during the 20th century : social-democracy and the Soviet communism.

Marxists could take their inspiration from Marx¹ remarks on the ParisCommune : workers cannot take possession of the capitalist state apparatusand put it to function at their service. They have to “break it” and replaceit by a radically different, democratic and non-statist form of politicalpower.

The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the productive apparatus : byits nature, its structure, it is not neutral, but at the service of capitalaccumulation and the unlimited expansion of the market. It is incontradiction with the needs of environment-protection and with the healthof the population. One must therefore “revolutionize” it, in a process ofradical transformation.

This may mean, for certain branches of production,to discontinue them : for instance, nuclear plants, certain methods ofmass/industrial fishing (responsible for the extermination of severalspecies in the seas), the destructive logging of tropical forests, etc (thelist is very long !). In any case, the productive forces, and not only therelations of production, have to be deeply changed – to begin with, by arevolution in the energy-system, with the replacement of the present sources-essentially fossil – responsible for the pollution and poisoning of theenvironment, by renewable ones : water, wind, sun.Of course, many scientific and technological achievements of modernity areprecious, but the whole productive system must be transformed, and this canbe done only by ecosocialist methods, i.e. through a democratic planning ofthe economy which takes into account the preservation of the ecologicalequilibrium.

The issue of energy is decisive for this process of civilizational change.Fossil energies (oil, coal) are responsible for much of the planet¹spollution, as well as for the disastrous climate change; nuclear energy is afalse alternative, not only because of the danger of newChernobyl, but alsobecause nobody knows what to do with the thousands of tons of radioactivewaist – toxic for hundreds, thousands and in some case millions of years -and the gigantic masses of contaminated obsolete plants.Solar energy, which did never arise much interest in capitalist societies,not being “profitable” nor “competitive”, would become the object ofintensive research and development, and play a key role in the building ofan alternative energetic system.

Entire sectors of the productive system areto be suppressed, or restructured, new ones have to be developed, under thenecessary condition of full employment for all the labour force, in equalconditions of work and wage. This condition is essential, not only becauseit is a requirement of social justice, but in order to assure the workerssupport for the process of structural transformation of the productiveforces. This process is impossible without public control over the means ofproduction, and planning, i.e. public decisions on investment andtechnological change, which must be taken away from the banks and capitalistenterprises in order to serve society¹s common good.To quote again Richard Smith : “If capitalism can¹t be reformed tosubordinate profit to human survival, what alternative is there but to moveto some sort of nationally and globally planned economy ? Problems likeclimate change require the ‘visible hand’ of direct planning.

Ourcapitalist corporate leaders can¹t help themselves, have no choice but tosystematically make wrong, irrational and ultimately – given the technologythey command – globally suicidal decisions about the economy and theenvironment. So then, what other choice do we have than to consider a trueecosocialist alternative?” [8]In Capital vol. III Marx defined socialism as a society where “theassociated producers rationally organize their exchange (Stoffwechsel) withnature”. Only the producers? In Capital vol. I, there is a broader approach:socialism is conceived as “an association of free human beings (Menschen)which works with common (gemeinschaftlichen) means of production “. [9]

Thissecond reading is much more appropriate: the rational organization ofproduction and consumption has to be the work not only of the “producers”,but also of the consumers; in fact, of the whole society, with itsproductive and “non-productive” population, which includes students, youth,housewives, pensioned people, etc.

The whole society in this sense, and not a small oligarchy ofproperty-owners – nor an elite of techno-bureaucrats – will be able tochoose, democratically, which productive lines are to be privileged, and howmuch resources are to be invested in education, health or culture. [10]

Theprices of goods themselves would not be left to the “laws of offer anddemand” but, to some extent, determined according to social and politicaloptions, as well as ecological criteria, leading to taxes on certainproducts, and subsidized prices for others. Ideally, as the transition tosocialism moves forward, more and more products and services would bedistributed free of charge, according to the will of the citizens.

Far from being “despotic” in itself, planning is the exercise, by a wholesociety, of its freedom: freedom of decision, and liberation from thealienated and reified “economic laws” of the capitalist system, whichdetermined the individuals¹ life and death, and enclosed them in an economic”iron cage” (Max Weber). Planning and the reduction of labour time are thetwo decisive steps of humanity towards what Marx called “the kingdom offreedom”.

A significant increase of free time is in fact a condition for thedemocratic participation of the working people in the democratic discussionand management of economy and of society.Partisans of the free market point to the failure of Soviet Planning toreject, out of hand, any idea of an organized economy. Without entering thediscussion on the achievements and miseries of the Soviet experience, it wasobviously a form of dictatorship over the needs – to use the expression ofGyörgy Markus and his friends from theBudapestSchoola non-democraticand authoritarian system that monopolized all decisions in the hands of asmall oligarchy of techno-bureaucrats.

It is not planning itself which ledto dictatorship, but the other way round: the growing limitations todemocracy in theSovietState, and, after Lenin¹s death, the establishmentof a totalitarian bureaucratic power, led to an increasingly undemocraticand authoritarian system of planning. If socialism is defined as thecontrol, by the workers and the population in general, of the process ofproduction, theSoviet Unionunder Stalin and his successors was a far cryfrom it.

The failure of theUSSRillustrates the limits and contradictions ofbureaucratic planning, which is inevitably inefficient and arbitrary: itcannot be used as an argument against democratic planning. [11] Thesocialist conception of planning is nothing else as the radicaldemocratization of economy: if political decisions are not to be left for asmall elite of rulers, why should not the same principle apply to economicones? I¹m leaving aside the issue of the specific proportion betweenplanning and market mechanisms : during the first stages of a new society,markets will certainly keep an important place, but as the transition tosocialism advances, planning would become more and more predominant, asagainst the laws of exchange-value. [12]

Frederick Engels already insisted that a socialist society “will have toestablish a plan of production taking into account the means of production,especially including the labour force. There will be, in last instance, theuseful effects of various use-objects, compared between themselves and inrelation to the quantity of labour necessary for their production, that willdetermine the plan”. [13]

While in capitalism the use-value is only a means- often a trick – at the service of exchange-value and profit – whichexplains, by the way, why so many products in the present society aresubstantially useless – in a planned socialist economy the use-value is theonly criteria for the production of goods and services, with far reachingeconomic, social and ecological consequences. As Joel Kovel observed: “Theenhancement of use-values and the corresponding restructuring of needsbecomes now the social regulator of technology rather than, as undercapital, the conversion of time into surplus value and money”. [14]

In a rationally organised production, the plan concerns the main economicoptions, not the administration of local restaurants, groceries andbakeries, small shops, artisan enterprises or services. It is important toemphasize that planning is not contradictory with workers self-management oftheir productive units: while the decision to transform an auto-plant intoone producing buses and trams is taken by society as a whole, through theplan, the internal organization and functioning of the plant is to bedemocratically managed by its own workers.

There has been much discussion onthe “centralised” or “decentralised” character of planning, but it could beargued that the real issue is democratic control of the plan, on all itslevels, local, regional, national, continental and, hopefully, international: ecological issues such as global warming are planetary and can be dealtwith only on a global scale.

One could call this proposition globaldemocratic planning; it is quite the opposite of what is usually describedas “central planning”, since the economic and social decisions are not takenby any “center”, but democratically decided by the concerned population.Of course, there will inevitably be tensions and contradictions betweenself-managed establishments or local democratic administrations, and broadergroups of “concerned people”.

Mechanisms of negotiation can help to solvemuch of such conflicts, but ultimately those directly concerned, if they arethe majority, have the right to impose their views. To give an imaginaryexample: a self-administered factory decides to evacuate its toxic waste ina river. The population of a whole region is in danger of being polluted: itcan therefore, after a democratic debate, decide that production in thisunit must be discontinued, until a satisfactory solution is found for thewaste control.

Hopefully, in an eco-socialist society, the factory workersthemselves will have enough ecological consciousness to avoid takingdecisions which are dangerous to the environment and to the health of thelocal populationŠ This does not mean, however, that the issues concerningthe internal management of the factory, or school, or neighbourhood, orhospital, or town, are not to be taken into their hands by the local workersor inhabitants.

Socialist planning is therefore grounded on a democratic and pluralistdebate, on all the levels where decisions are to be taken: differentpropositions are submitted to the concerned people, in the form of parties,platforms, or any other political movements, and delegates are accordinglyelected.

However, representative democracy must be completed – and corrected- by direct democracy, where people directly choose – at the local, nationaland, later, global level – between major options: should publictransportation be free? Should the owners of private cars pay special taxesto subsidize public transportation? Should sun-produced energy besubsidized, in order to compete with fossil energy? Should the weekly workhours be reduced to 30, 25 or less, even if this means a reduction ofproduction?

The democratic nature of planning is not contradictory with theexistence of experts, but their role is not to decide, but to present theirviews – often different, if not contradictory – to the population, and letit choose the best solution.

As Ernest Mandel wrote: “Governments, parties,planning boards, scientists, technocrats or whoever can make suggestions,put forward proposals, try to influence people. But under a multi-partysystem, such proposals will never be unanimous: people will have the choicebetween coherent alternatives. And the right and power to decide should bein the hands of the majority of producers/consumers/citizens, not of anybodyelse. What is paternalistic or despotic about that?” [15]

What guarantee is that the people will make the correct ecological choices,even at the price of giving up some of its habits of consumption? There isno such “guarantee”, other than the wager on the rationality of democraticdecisions, once the power of commodity fetishism is broken. Of course,errors will be committed by the popular choices, but who believes that theexperts do not make errors themselves?

One cannot imagine the establishmentof such a new society without the majority of the population havingachieved, by their struggles, their self-education, and their socialexperience, a high level of socialist/ecological consciousness, and thismakes it reasonable to suppose that errors – including decisions which areinconsistent with environmental needs – will be corrected. [16]

In any case,are not the proposed alternatives – the blind market or an ecologicaldictatorship of “experts” – much more dangerous than the democratic process,with all its contradictions?It is true that planning requires the existence of executive/technicalbodies, in charge of putting into practice what has been decided, but ifthey are under permanent democratic control from below, they are notnecessarily more authoritarian than, say, the administration of thepost-office services.

The experience of participative budgets inBrazil, ata local and even provincial level, is, in spite of its obvious limitations,an interesting example of such direct democratic practices. Of course, onecannot expect the majority of the people to spend all their free time inself-management or participatory meetings; as Ernest Mandel commented,”self-administration does not entail the disappearance of delegation, itcombines decision-making by the citizens with stricter control of delegatesby their respective electorate”. [17]

There is no room here for a detailed discussion of other conceptions ofplanning, such as “market socialism”, social ecology (Murray Bookchin), etc.Just a few words about Michael Albert “participatory economy” (parecon),which has been the object of some debate in the Global Justice movement.This conception has some common features with the one here proposed -eco-socialist planning such as: opposition to the capitalist market and tobureaucratic planning, a reliance on worker¹s self organisation,anti-authoritarianism. There are however some serious shortcomings in thisproposition, which seems to ignore ecology, and assimilates “socialism” tothe bureaucratic/centralized Soviet model.

Michael Albert’s idea of participatory planning is based on a complexinstitutional construction: “The participants in participatory planning arethe workers¹ councils and federations, the consumers¹ councils andfederations, and various Iteration Facilitation Boards (IFBs). Conceptually,the planning procedure is quite simple. An IFB announces what we call”indicative prices” for all goods, resources, categories of labour, andcapital. Consumers¹ councils and federations respond with consumptionproposals taking the indicative prices of final goods and services asestimates of the social cost of providing them. Workers councils andfederations respond with production proposals listing the outputs they wouldmake available and the inputs they would need to produce them, again, takingthe indicative prices as estimates of the social benefits of outputs andtrue opportunity costs of inputs.

An IFB then calculates the excess demandor supply for each good and adjusts the indicative price for the good up, ordown, in light of the excess demand or supply, and in accord with sociallyagreed algorithms. Using the new indicative prices, consumers and workerscouncils and federations revise and resubmit their proposals.

In placeof rule over workers by capitalists or by coordinators, parecon is aneconomy in which workers and consumers together cooperatively determinetheir economic options and benefit from them in ways fostering equity,solidarity, diversity, and self-management. “[18]The main problem with this conception – which, by the way, is not “quitesimple” but extremely elaborate and sometimes quite obscure is that itseems to reduce “planning” to a sort of negotiation between producers andconsumers on the issue of prices, inputs and outputs, supply and demand.

Forinstance, the branch worker’s council of the car producing industry wouldmeet with the council of consumers to discuss prices and to adapt supply todemand. What this leaves out is precisely what constitutes the main issue ofecosocialist planning: a reorganization of the transport system, radicallyreducing the place of the private car. Since ecosocialism requires entirebranches of industry to disappear – nuclear plants, for instance – and themassive investment in small or almost non-existent branches (e.g. solarenergy) how can this be dealt by “cooperative negotiations” between theexisting units of production and consumer councils on “inputs” and”indicative prices” ?

Albert¹s model mirrors the existing technological and productive structure,and is too “economistic” to take into account global, socio-political, andsocio-ecological interests of the population, the interests of theindividuals, as citizens and as human beings, which cannot be reduced totheir economic interests as producers and consumers. He leaves out not onlythe State as an institution – a respectable option – but politics as theconfrontation, at the level of global societies, of different economic,social, political, ecological, cultural and civilizational options.

The passage from capitalist “destructive progress” to socialism is anhistorical process, a permanent revolutionary transformation of society,culture and mentalities – and politics in the sense just defined cannot bebut central to this process. It is important to emphasize that such aprocess cannot begin without a revolutionary transformation of social andpolitical structures, and the active support, by the vast majority of thepopulation, of an ecosocialist program.

The development of socialistconsciousness and ecological awareness is a process, where the decisivefactor is peoples own collective experience of struggle, from local andpartial confrontations to the radical change of society.This transition would lead not only to a new mode of production and anegalitarian and democratic society, but also to an alternative mode of life,a new ecosocialist civilization, beyond the reign of money, beyondconsumption habits artificially produced by advertising, and beyond theunlimited production of commodities that are useless and/or harmful to theenvironment.

Some ecologists believe that the only alternative to productivism is to stopgrowth altogether, or to replace it by negative growth – what the Frenchcall décroissance – and drastically reduce the excessively high level ofconsumption of the population by cutting by half the expenditure of energy,by renouncing to individual houses, to central heating, to washing machines,etc. Since these and similar measures of draconian austerity risk beingquite unpopular, some of them play with the idea of a sort of “ecologicaldictatorship”. [19]

Against such pessimistic views, socialist optimists believe that technicalprogress and the use of renewable sources of energy will permit an unlimitedgrowth and abundance, so that each can receive “according to his needs”.It seems to me that these two schools share a purely quantitative conceptionof – positive or negative – “growth”, or of the development of productiveforces.

There is a third position, which seems to me more appropriate: aqualitative transformation of development. This means putting an end to themonstrous waste of resources by capitalism, based on the production, in alarge scale, of useless and/or harmful products: the armaments industry is agood example, but a great part of the “goods” produced in capitalism – withtheir inbuilt obsolescence – have no other usefulness but to generate profitfor the great corporations.

The issue is not “excessive consumption” inabstract, but the prevalent type of consumption, based as it is onconspicuous appropriation, massive waste, mercantile alienation, obsessiveaccumulation of goods, and the compulsive acquisition of pseudo-noveltiesimposed by “fashion”. A new society would orient production towards thesatisfaction of authentic needs, beginning with those which could bedescribed as “biblical” – water, food, clothing, housing – but includingalso the basic services: health, education, transport, culture.

Obviously, the countries of the South, were these needs are very far frombeing satisfied, will need a much higher level of “development” – buildingrailroads, hospitals, sewage systems, and other infra-structures – than theadvanced industrial ones. But there is no reason why this cannot beaccomplished with a productive system that is environment-friendly and basedon renewable energies.

These countries will need to grow great amounts offood to nourish their hungry population, but this can be much betterachieved – as the peasant movements organised world-wide in the ViaCampesina network have been arguing for years – by a peasant biologicalagriculture based of family-units, cooperatives or collectivist farms,rather than by the destructive and anti-social methods of industrialisedagro-business, based on the intensive use of pesticides, chemicals and GMOs.Instead of the present monstrous debt-system, and the imperialistexploitations of the resources of the South by the industrial/capitalistcountries, there would be a flow of technical and economic help from theNorth to the South, without the need – as some Puritan and asceticecologists seem to believe – for the population inEuropeor North Americato “reduce their standard of living” : they will only get rid of theobsessive consumption, induced by the capitalist system, of uselesscommodities that do not correspond to any real need, while redefining themeaning of standard of living to connote a way of life that is actuallyricher, while consuming less.

How to distinguish the authentic from the artificial, false and makeshiftneeds? The last ones are induced by mental manipulation, i.e. advertisement.The advertisement system has invaded all spheres of human life in moderncapitalist societies: not only nourishment and clothing, but sports,culture, religion and politics are shaped according to its rules. It hasinvaded our streets, mail boxes, TV-screens, newspapers, landscapes, in apermanent, aggressive and insidious way, and it decisively contributes tohabits of conspicuous and compulsive consumption.

Moreover, it wastes anastronomic amount of oil, electricity, labour time, paper, chemicals, andother raw materials – all paid by the consumers in a branch of”production” which is not only useless, from a human viewpoint, but directlyin contradiction with real social needs.

While advertisement is an indispensable dimension of the capitalist marketeconomy, it would have no place in a society in transition to socialism,where it would be replaced by information on goods and services provided byconsumer associations. The criteria for distinguishing an authentic from anartificial need, is its persistence after the suppression of advertisement(Coca Cola!). Of course, during some years, old habits of consumption wouldpersist, and nobody has the right to tell the people what their needs are.The change in the patterns of consumption is a historical process, as wellas an educational challenge.Some commodities, such as the individual car, raise more complex problems.Private cars are a public nuisance, killing and maiming hundreds of thousandpeople yearly on world scale, polluting the air in the great towns – withdire consequences for the health of children and older people – andsignificantly contributing to the climate change.

However, they correspondto a real need, by transporting people to their work, home or leisure. Localexperiences in some European towns with ecologically minded administrationsshow that it is possible – and approved by the majority of the population -to progressively limit the part of the individual automobile in circulation,to the advantage of buses and trams. In a process of transition toecosocialism, where public transportation – above or underground – would bevastly extended and free of charge for the users, and where foot-walkers andbicycle-riders will have protected lanes, the private car would have a muchsmaller role as in bourgeois society, where it has become a fetish commodity- promoted by insistent and aggressive advertisement – a prestige symbol, anidentity sign – in theUS, the drivers license is the recognized IDandthe center of personal, social or erotic life. [20]

It will be much easier, in the transition to a new society, to drasticallyreduce the transportation of goods by trucks – responsible for terribleaccidents, and high levels of pollution – replacing it by the train, or bywhat the French call ferroutage (trucks transported in trains from one townto the other): only the absurd logic of capitalist “competitiveness”explains the dangerous growth of the truck-system.Yes, will answer the pessimists, but individuals are moved by infiniteaspirations and desires, that have to be controlled, checked, contained andif necessary repressed, and this may need some limitations on democracy.

Now, ecosocialism is based on a wager, which was already Marx¹s : thepredominance, in a society without classes and liberated of capitalistalienation, of “being” over “having”, i.e. of free time for the personalaccomplishment by cultural, sportive, playful, scientific, erotic, artisticand political activities, rather than the desire for an infinite possessionof products. Compulsive acquisitiveness is induced by the commodityfetishism inherent in the capitalist system, by the dominant ideology and byadvertisement: nothing proves that it is part of an “eternal human nature”,as the reactionary discourse wants us to believe.

As Ernest Mandel emphasized: “The continual accumulation of more and moregoods (with declining “marginal utility”) is by no means a universal andeven predominant feature of human behaviour. The development of talents andinclinations for their own sake; the protection of health and life; care forchildren; the development of rich social relations all these becomemajor motivations once basic material needs have been satisfied”. [21]

As we have insisted, this does not mean that conflicts will not arise,particularly during the transitional process, between the requirements ofthe environment protection and the social needs, between the ecologicalimperatives and the necessity of developing basic infra-structures,particularly in the poor countries, between popular consumer habits and thescarcity of resources. A classless society is not a society withoutcontradictions and conflicts! These are inevitable: it will be the task ofdemocratic planning, in an ecosocialist perspective, liberated from theimperatives of capital and profit-making, to solve them, by a pluralist andopen discussion, leading to decision-making by society itself. Such agrass-roots and participative democracy is the only way, not to avoiderrors, but to permit the self-correction, by the social collectivity, ofits own mistakes.

Is this Utopia? In its etymological sense – “something that exists nowhere”- certainly. But are not utopias, i.e. visions of an alternative future,wish-images of a different society, a necessary feature of any movement thatwants to challenge the established order? As Daniel Singer explained in hisliterary and political testament, Whose Millennium? , in a powerful chapterentitled “Realistic Utopia”, “if the establishment now looks so solid,despite the circumstances, and if the labour movement or the broader leftare so crippled, so paralyzed, it is because of the failure to offer aradical alternative. The basic principle of the game is that youquestion neither the fundamentals of the argument nor the foundations ofsociety. Only a global alternative, breaking with these rules of resignationand surrender, can give the movement of emancipation genuine scope”. [22]

The socialist and ecological utopia is only an objective possibility, notthe inevitable result of the contradictions of capitalism, or of the “ironlaws of history”. One cannot predict the future, except in conditionalterms: in the absence of an ecosocialist transformation, of a radical changein the civilizational paradigm, the logic of capitalism will lead the planetto dramatic ecological disasters, threatening the health and the life ofbillions of human beings, and perhaps even the survival of our species. * **To dream, and to struggle, for a green socialism, or, according to some, asolar communism, does not mean that one does not fight for concrete andurgent reforms.

Without any illusions on a “clean capitalism”, one must tryto win time, and to impose, on the powers that be, some elementary changes :the banning of the HCFCs that are destroying the ozone layer, a generalmoratorium on genetically modified organisms, a drastic reduction in theemission of the greenhouse gases, the development of public transportation,the taxation of polluting cars, the progressive replacement of trucks bytrains, a severe regulation of the fishing industry, as well as of the useof pesticides and chemicals in the agro-industrial production.

These, andsimilar issues, are at the heart of the agenda of the Global Justicemovement, and the World Social Forums, a decisive new development which haspermitted, since Seattle in 1999, the convergence of social andenvironmental movements in a common struggle against the system.These urgent eco-social demands can lead to a process of radicalisation, onthe condition that one does not accept to limit one¹s aims according to therequirements of “the [capitalist] market” or of “competitivity”. Accordingto the logic of what Marxists call “a transitional program”, each smallvictory, each partial advance can immediately lead to a higher demand, to amore radical aim. Such struggles around concrete issues are important, notonly because partial victories are welcome in themselves, but also becausethey contribute to raise ecological and socialist consciousness, and becausethey promote activity and self-organisation from below: both are decisiveand necessary pre-conditions for a radical, i.e. revolutionary,transformation of the world.

Local experiences such as car-free areas in several European towns, organicagricultural cooperatives launched by the Brazilian peasant movement (MST),or the participative budget in Porto Alegre and, for a few years, in theBrazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul (under PT Governor Olivio Dutra), arelimited, but interesting examples of social/ecological change. By permittingto local assemblies to decide the priorities of the budget, Porto Alegre was- until the left lost the 2002 municipal election – perhaps the mostattractive experience of “planning from bellow”, in spite of itslimitations. [23]There have also been a few progressive measures taken by some nationalgovernments, but on the whole the experience of Left-Center or “Left/Green”coalitions in Europe orLatin Americahas been rather disappointing,remaining firmly inside the limits of a social-liberal policy of adaptationto capitalist globalisation.There will be no radical transformation unless the forces committed to aradical socialist and ecological programme become hegemonic, in theGramscian sense of the word.

Time is working for change, because the globalsituation of the environment is becoming worse and worse, and the threatscloser and closer. But time is running out, because in some years – no onecan say how much – the damage may be irreversible.There is no reason for optimism: the entrenched ruling elites of the systemare incredibly powerful, and the forces of radical opposition are stillsmall. But they are the only hope that the catastrophic course of capitalist”growth” will be halted. Walter Benjamin defined revolutions as being notthe locomotive of history, but the humanity reaching for the emergencybreaks of the train, before it goes down the abyss [24]


1. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume 1,Berlin: Dietz Verlag, pp. 529-530.For aremarkable analysis of the destructive logic of capital, see Joel Kovel, TheEnemy of Nature. The End of Capitalism or the End of the World ?,NewYork,;Zed Books, 2002.

2. James O¹Connor, Natural Causes. Essays in Ecological Marxism,NewYork:TheGuilfordPress, 1998, pp. 278, 331.

3. John Bellamy Foster uses the concept of “ecological revolution”, but heargues that “a global ecological revolution worthy of the name can onlyoccur as part of a larger social – and I would insist, socialist -revolution. Such a revolution would demand, as Marx insisted, that theassociated producers rationally regulate the human metabolic relation withnature. It must take its inspiration from William Morris, one of themost original and ecological followers of Karl Marx, from Gandhi, and fromother radical, revolutionary and materialist figures, including Marxhimself, stretching as far back as Epicurus”. (“Organizing EcologicalRevolution”, Monthly Review, 57.5, October 2005, pp. 9-10).

4. For an ecosocialist critique of the “actually existing ecopolitics” -Green economics, Deep ecology, Bioregionalism, etc – see the above mentionedbook by Joel Kovel, Enemy of Nature ch. 7.

5. Richard Smith, “The Engine of Eco Collapse”, Capitalism, Nature andSocialism, vol. 16, n° 4, december 2005, p;p. 31, 33.

6. See John Bellamy Foster, Marx¹s Ecology. Materialism and Nature,NewYork, Monthly Review Press, 2000.

7. F. Engels, Anti-Dühring,Paris, Ed. Sociales, 1950, p. 318.

8. R.Smith, Ibid. p. 35.

9. K.Marx, Das Kapital, Berlin, Dietz Verlag,, 1968, vol. III, p. 828, vol.I, p. 92. One can find similar problems in contemporary Marxism; forinstance, Ernest Mandel argued for a “democratically-centralist planningunder a national congress of worker¹s councils made up in its large majorityof real workers”. ( “Economics of Transition Period”, in 50 Years of WorldRevolution, Pathfinder Press, 1971, p. 286). In later writings, he refersrather to “producers/consumers”.

10. Ernest Mandel defined planning in the following terms : ” An economygoverned by a plan impliesŠthat society¹s relatively scarce resources arenot apportioned blindly (“behind the backs of the producer-consumer”) by theplay of the law of value but that they are consciously allocated accordingto previously established priorities. In a transitional economy weresocialist democracy prevails, the mass of the working people) democraticallydetermine this choice of priorities”. (“Economics of Transition Period”, p.282).

11. “From the point of view of the mass of workers, sacrifices imposed bybureaucratic arbitrariness are neither more nor less Œacceptable¹ thansacrifices imposed by the blind mechanisms of the market. These representonly two different forms of the same alienation.” (“Economics of TransitionPeriod”, p. 285). We are often going to quote from the writings of ErnestMandel, because he is the most articulate socialist theoretician ofdemocratic planning. But it should be said that until the late 1980’s he didnot include the ecological issue aa a central aspect of his economicarguments.

12. In his remarkable recent book on socialism the Argentinian Marxisteconomist Claudio Katz emphasized that democratic planning, supervised frombellow by the majority of the population, “is not identical with absolutecentralisation, total statisation, war communism or command economy. Thetransition requires the primacy of planning over the market, but not thesuppression of the market variables. The combination between both instancesshould be adapted to each situation and each country.”. However, “the aim ofthe socialist process is not to keep an unchanged equilibrium between theplan and the market, but to promote a progressive loss of the marketpositions”. (C.Katz, El porvenir del Socialismo,Buenos Aires,Herramienta/Imago Mundi, 2004, pp. 47-48.

13. Anti-Dühring, p. 349.

14. Joel Kovel, Enemy of Nature, p. 215.

15. E.Mandel, Power and Money, p. 209.

16. Ernest Mandel observed : “We do not believe that the ‘majority is alwaysright’.Everybody does make mistakes. This will certainly be true of themajority of citizens, of the majority of the producers, and of the majorityof the consumers alike. But there will be one basic difference between themand their predecessors. In any system of unequal power those who makethe wrong decisions about the allocation of resources are rarely those whopay for the consequences of their mistakes. Provided there exists realpolitical democracy, r eal cultural choice and information, it is hard tobelieve that the majority would prefer to see their woods die or theirhospitals understaffed, rather than rapidly to correct their mistakenallocations”. (“In defense of socialist planning”, New Left Review, n° 159,October 1986, p. 31.)

17. E.Mandel, Power and Money, p. 204.

18. Michael Albert, Participatory Econopmics. Life After Capitalism,London,Verso, 2003, ch. 9.

19. Ernest Mandel was sceptical of rapid changes in consumer habitts , suchas the private car : “If, in spite of every environmental and otherargument, they [the producers and consumers] wanted to maintain thedominance of the private motor car and to continue polluting their cities,that would be their right. Changes in long-standing consumer orientationsare generally slow – there can be few who believe that workers in theUnitedStateswould abandon their attachment to the automobile the day after asocialist revolution”. (“In defense of socialist planning”, p. 30). WhileMandel is right in insisting that changes in consumption patterns are not tobe imposed, he seriously underestimates the impact that a system ofextensive and free of charge public transports would have, as well as theassentiment of the majority of the citizens – already today, in severalgreat European cities – for measures restricting automobile circulation.

20. Ernest Mandel, Power and Money. A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy,London,Verso, 1992, p. 206.

21. D. Singer, Whose Millenium ? Theirs or Ours ?New York, Monthly ReviewPress, 1999, pp. 259-260.

22. See S. Baierle, “ThePorto AlegreThermidor”, in Socialist Register2003.

23. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, Vomume I/3,Frankfurt: Suhrkamp,1980, p. 1232.

* This texte has been published, under a somehow reduced form, by “theSocialist Register 2007”. Some corrections introduced by the editors are notincluded here.

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